Coming Together to Advance Educational Attainment

In the first installment of the Economy League’s Talent in Greater Philadelphia series, Steve Wray examines two successful, collaborative efforts focused on postsecondary degree attainment.

More than ever, broad economic consensus has coalesced around the importance of postsecondary education as a critical driver of regional economic growth as well as individual opportunity. In Greater Philadelphia, 43% of the population currently has an associate’s degree or higher, but by 2020, two-thirds of all jobs nationally will require a postsecondary degree. That’s why the World Class education & talent development agenda identifies making the region a national leader in postsecondary credential attainment as one of its four critical long-run focus areas.


Over the last two decades, as Greater Philadelphia has taken stock of its knowledge economy assets and how to strengthen the pipeline of skilled workers, two national-model programs have emerged. As the region looks to boost postsecondary attainment, reflecting on the origins and successes of these innovative efforts can offer helpful insight on the best way forward.


Aligning Efforts to Reverse Brain Drain


During the 1990s, a widespread concern about “brain drain” prompted The Pew Charitable Trusts and leading civic organizations to partner with the Economy League to analyze the role of the region’s higher education institutions in growing a talented workforce. The findings were troubling: despite the 300,000 students who were graduating from our more than 100 colleges and universities each year, Greater Philadelphia was lagging behind peer metros on key indicators such as educational attainment and the retention of students not originally from the region.


In response, a coalition of organizations – including the Economy League, Visit Philadelphia (formerly GPTMC), the City of Philadelphia, and Innovation Philadelphia – formed the Knowledge Industry Partnership with initial funding from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. With incubation support from the Economy League, these organizations worked together to develop and implement a shared strategy to attract, engage and retain college students in our region.


In 2004, Campus Philly was formed to spearhead the Knowledge Industry Partnership’s student engagement efforts. Two years later, it became the home for all three of the Partnership’s student attraction, engagement, and retention programs. Over the last ten years, Campus Philly has become a nationally recognized and replicated nonprofit with more than 30 higher education partners in our region. It works to keep recent grads in Greater Philadelphia by connecting them with career prospects via internships and job opportunities and with the broader community by providing student discounts and information about the region’s vibrant civic, cultural, and service opportunities.


Today, more students than ever are recommending Philadelphia as a place to live. According to a 2014 survey of recent Philadelphia-area graduates, 73% of survey respondents said they would recommend the region, compared to only 55% in 2010, when a similar study was conducted. Perhaps even more significant is the increase in non-native students who choose to live in Philadelphia after graduation. In the 10 years since Philadelphia conducted its first survey of recent college grads, the rate of non-natives choosing to reside in the region increased from 29% to 42%.


The origins and growth of Campus Philly over the last decade demonstrate how smart analysis and the alignment and scaling of existing efforts can help move the needle on a complex regional challenge.


An Important Line in the Census

At around the same time that Campus Philly’s student retention efforts were getting underway, the Economy League and the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board (now Philadelphia Works) came together to investigate and seek solutions to the challenge of increasing the city’s supply of college-educated workers. Using the U.S. Census indicator that measures the number of residents with some college credits but no degree, they found that nearly 80,000 Philadelphians between the ages of 25 and 45 – or one in six adults – fell into this category.


It became clear that perhaps the quickest and most effective way to increase the region’s stock of college-educated workers was to boost the attainment rate among these native Philadelphians. These “comebackers” – many of whom had been low-income, first-generation college students – were not a primary focus of public policies, civic initiatives, and many educational institutions.


In 2005, the Economy League and the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board published a policy paper, calling for an additional support structure for adult students to supplement the work taking place at individual higher education institutions. The result was the formation of Graduate! Philadelphia, a partnership of the Workforce Investment Board and United Way.


Ten years later, Graduate! Philadelphia – now an independent nonprofit organization – has helped more than 6,200 adults assess their degree completion options. Of those, 2,500 adults returned to college with assistance from Graduate! Philadelphia and have earned 1,000 two- or four-year degrees. In addition, the Graduate! model has been adapted in 24 communities across the U.S.


In its work with colleges and universities across the region – and the country – Graduate! has proven that targeting efforts to a hitherto underserved population can be an effective way of tackling one piece of a larger problem.


While Campus Philly and Graduate! Philadelphia are two primary examples of collaborative endeavors focusing on regional postsecondary attainment, they are far from the only models that have shown staying power. The Philadelphia College Prep Roundtable, Philadelphia Council for College and Career Success, and Philadelphia Higher Education Network for Neighborhood Development are a few of the other multi-stakeholder coalitions working on higher education issues. These efforts together have driven progress around college access in Greater Philadelphia. Drawing upon these successes, the next big challenge for our region will be powering improvements around college persistence and completion.


Read the second installment in the series, Moving from College Access to Success >>


This series is made possible through the generous support of Talent Greater Philly and the Lumina Foundation.